School Meal Program:

Options for Improving the Verification of Student Eligibility

RCED-86-122BR: Published: Mar 17, 1986. Publicly Released: Apr 9, 1986.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO: (1) examined the impact that the documentation and verification requirements in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 had on school meal program error rates in the 1984 to 1985 school year; (2) evaluated procedures that school food authorities used to document and verify applicants' eligibility for school meal benefits; and (3) identified alternatives to the current documentation and verification procedures.

GAO found that, for a student to qualify for a free meal, an adult member of the household must submit an application to the local school food authority, which then determines the student's eligibility for program benefits. The eligibility determination process relies on the applicants' declarations, rather than documentation originating from third parties. Because many applicants did not substantiate the incomes declared on their applications, the average error rate for the 1984 to 1985 school year was 29 percent. Although the school districts generally adhered to the verification regulations and procedures by verifying applications and making accurate determinations, most errors remained undetected and uncorrected because regulations required eligibility information to be verified for only a small sample of applications. GAO identified four options that could be used to reduce erroneous participation in the school meal programs, including: (1) requiring documentation with all applications; (2) requiring income documentation with non-food-stamp applications only; (3) expanding verification efforts at school districts with high error rates; and (4) strengthening verification procedures by using wage matching. The options could reduce the participant error rate in the programs, which would result in savings to the federal government, but they could also produce higher administrative costs for the school food authorities and place an administrative burden on some applicants. GAO believes that further studies of the inherent advantages and disadvantages of each option are needed.

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